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Courtney Barnett Just Needs A Minute

The Australian indie icon on dropping her guard and picking up a fresh perspective with new album, Things Take Time, Take Time.

by Erica Campbell

Photo by Mia Mala McDonald

In the two years that made up the album cycle for her 2018 sophomore album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, Courtney Barnett was feeling a “general overwhelm of everything,” an underlying melancholy over the state of her personal life and the world at large. “All those things build up in different ways at different moments,” she shares. “You never quite know when it’s going to get you, or how.”

It was around the beginning of 2020, however, that the Australian singer-songwriter recalls an optimistic outlook slowly creeping in. “I started to feel some sort of strange emotional shift into this more positive, I’m not sure what it was,” she shares when asked what initiated this new way of being. “I think the answer is eternally learning about myself and the world around me and how I interact. Constantly trying to teach myself, or allow myself to learn, how to change little personal patterns and psychological patterns. Not repeating the same behaviour or the same story.”

When asked about the positive mindset shift that led to her third studio album, Things Take Time, Take Time, Barnett acknowledges, that it’s an odd time to have such a turnaround. “Maybe it’s an extreme reaction, some sort of strange survival technique. I was up and down a lot and it was probably like, ‘If you continue to go down the holes you’re going down…’” she pauses, leaving the sentence hanging in the air, before picking up another one. “I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s weird because it feels so positive.”

During our video call Barnett is careful with her words, noticeably punctuating responses with “probably” or “maybe” before explaining the motive behind a song, sound, or feeling. It’s as if everything is a hypothesis, open to further investigation, like she’s observing herself without feeling the need to attach permanent meaning. There’s space for the answer to change.

That openness to possibility comes through in Barnett’s fresh perspective, and the unguarded lyricism, lush melodies, and emotional levity she imbued into Things Take Time. Barnett is clearly skilled in the art of keen and witty observations delivered deadpan over guitar, something she’s been perfecting since her critically-acclaimed 2015 debut, Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit

In her latest collection of 10 open-hearted songs she created with “creative joy” and assistance from friend and collaborator Stella Mozgawa, those observations are turned inward. This inner shift took place as she was writing for the record, which led to Barnett discarding songs that no longer felt true—all but one. “I think sometimes when I say that, people are like, ‘Wow, she had a whole album and then she moved on to another idea,’” Barnett responds. “The most honest way of looking at it is that the songs morph into a different song or a different idea. They might’ve been a really depressing song, and maybe I needed to work through that in my own space and write this miserable song and sing it to myself for a couple of months and then be like, ‘I don’t believe that anymore.’” I didn’t need to retell the story to myself of being miserable to romanticize it or continue the thought pattern. Maybe sometimes you just have to go through something and then move on.”

The song she decided to keep, “Write A List Of Things To Look Forward To,” shares its name with the gratitude list-making technique Barnett took on following a suggestion from a friend. In it, she cheerfully layers lyrics like “a baby is born as a man lay dying,” and “sit beside me watch the world burn,” over bright upbeat melodies. The song displays an acute level of human awareness, pointing to the importance of connection, while reminding listeners that things aren’t necessarily good or bad, but there’s always something to look forward to.

Time also sees Barnett introduce love songs into her wheelhouse, a notable change from her past ethos. “My stance in the past was like, ‘There’s so many love songs and they don’t mean anything.’” But “Before You Gotta Go”, with its direct confession, “if something were to happen my dear, I wouldn’t want the last words you hear to be unkind” and “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight” with its vulnerable admittance, “if loving you’s a crime, then gimme those front page headlines,” are sweet without being saccharine, accurate depictions of the first rush of love.

“I’m not sure,” Barnett replies when asked why she flipped her position on love songs. “Maybe, that dropping the guard a bit and probably trying to celebrate that feeling and embracing how wonderful that feeling is. Celebration without the fear of whether you tell someone you liked them or not and what will happen and what they might say and all the things that could go wrong and the ways it could ruin your life and their life. Instead of following every possibility of the bad end of the story, it’s embracing the fact that it really doesn’t matter.” She cites the lyrics in “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight” as an example: “It’s like ‘Stars in the sky are gonna die eventually it’s fine’ it’s borderline,” she pauses to laugh, “It’s not pessimistic, it’s just that’s the way the world is. Things are gonna happen and it’s fine. We’re all going to die, but the mountains are gonna keep on standing there.”

That sentiment is also magnified over the slow-paced strumming and recollections of everyday happenings in “Rae Street” ​​as Barnett sings “There’s one thing I know; the sun will rise today and tomorrow. We got a long, long way to go.” It’s reassuring without being unrealistic. “I’m not trying to eliminate any of the negative or less than positive feelings,” Barnett clarifies. “It’s more about living with both and accepting them, but leaning towards the more positive or the smaller, beautiful things that exist in the world. Amplifying them instead of dwelling on negative parts of my brain.”

Barnett also shares that the lyrics, “The trees are turning green, and this springtime lethargy is kinda forcing you to see flowers in the weeds,” shared evenly over drum machines in the track “Turning Green” are a nice snapshot of the bigger album. “I think that’s maybe my favourite song on the album. The recording process was a bit of a journey and I wrote it one day by accident. It was this guitar-y, jangly pop song and it was really pretty. But when we took it in the studio I went through this whole journey and we had to change it into what it eventually turned into, just the drum and bass version.” The song, and the steps necessary to make it, seem to be a microcosm for Barnett’s current mentality as well. “It was nice to see the evolution of a song. I think a lot of this album for me was seeing how there’s no one way a song needs to exist. There’s no right or wrong, there’s just so many paths an idea can go down.”